Passionate Game Design

Sorcerer Unbound: Fiction Matters

Imagine for a moment that I put a blank sheet of paper and a pencil in front of you and tell you to write. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph. Imagine I tell you to write a paragraph about an apple. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph describing an apple. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph describing an apple that doesn’t use the words red or green.

Now, notice that each time I add something I limit what you can write in some way. Or if you don’t see it as limiting, I’m at least giving your writing some definitive shape or direction. My main point of this post is to point out that these are as much rules as telling you to roll dice and subtract the total from your stat. If you hand me a sonnet about a girl eating red cherries in the green trees you will have broken the rules.

Sorcerer has many, many rules of this nature besides its albeit powerful and central resolution mechanic and currency system. Descriptors are perhaps the most obvious example. Two things about descriptors is that they are chosen from a fixed list (not made up on the fly) and that the list be customized to give direction to the kinds of characters that are appropriate to any given vision of the game.

Consider, for example, the Will Descriptor from the book, “Belief System.” For my Gothic Fantasy setting there is no “Belief System” on my Will Descriptor list. In the source material, the late 18th Century Gothic Novel, Catholicism is a big deal. So in my custom descriptor list there is “Faith in The Church.” Also in the source material, nature vs. the will of man is a big deal. So I also have, “Paganism” as a descriptor but it’s not a Will descriptor, it’s a LORE descriptor. I will note that “Church Heresy” is also on my Lore descriptor list.

I’m willing to discuss why one is a Will descriptor and the other is a Lore descriptor, if you’re curious, but I’d prefer to do so in another thread. But let me say that I have given it serious thought and it’s intentional on my part. It is by design. It is a rule for my Gothic Fantasy incarnation of Sorcerer.

Another example of what I’m talking about in Sorcerer is a Demon’s Desire and Need. These are not merely, “guidelines” for the Demon’s “personality.” Unlike descriptors, which are not character behavior limiting, Desire and Need are demon behavior limiting. Like the paragraph describing the apple without using red or green, Desire and Need limit what a GM can have a Demon do.

The GM should not just wave off a Demon’s Need simply because he feels it’s not appropriate right now. That’s breaking the rules. If the situation dictates the Demon goes into Need, it goes into Need period. The GM should not have the Demon act counter to its Desire just because he feels like it. There’s a reason ordering a demon to do something counter to its Desire incurs a huge die penalty.

Now, I will grant that there is no objective timer for when a Demon goes into Need (although see the rules about Ability usage and Stamina). Identifying the situational context for proper application of the Desire and Need rules is a skill that takes practice and requires cultivation. However, I would like to assert that cultivating this skill is really no different than learning how to identify a conflict and reaching for the dice when one is spotted. For what it’s worth, applying Desire and Need appropriately is probably one of my weakest skills as a Sorcerer GM.

Everything I’m describing applies in full to all of chapter four of the core book. Chapter four gives people, including myself, a weird feeling the first time you read it because it appears out of place. It comes between character/demon creation and the rest of the mechanical rules of the game. This is because those of us familiar with other RPG texts are used to the material in chapter 4 being “suggestions” or “advice” and thus at the END of the book.

Chapter four is not “advice” it’s more rules. Chapter four provides the framework that gives everything in the follow chapters meaning. Games of Sorcerer that don’t work out can often be tracked back to a failure on the groups part to do something described in chapter four.

Example Complaint: Sorcery seemed ridiculously hard and not very useful.
Likely Cause: Failure to define the Sorcery Technicality. What’s that? It’s in chapter four and basically comes down to defining the look and feel of sorcery as well as defining exactly what can be accomplished with Lore. Without a Sorcery Technicality there is no context for earning bonus dice or roll over victories for rituals. There is no direction for how demons move and behave. Lore becomes a fairly useless and meaningless score.

Sorcerer, the game, is a much much broader thing than just its resolution system. It is a very specific narrative structure and framework all of which is outlined in the core book. Ron selected these narrative components very carefully by design. They are not just color, suggestions, advice or guidelines. They are rules. The game will not work if you do not apply them correctly.

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